|Bette Davis in her greatest sympathetic role, as Charlotte Vale, in 1942's 'Now, Voyager.'|
Warner Brothers’ most famous slogan for their top star, Bette Davis, stuck with her: “Nobody’s as good as Bette when she’s bad!” However, Now, Voyager is proof that nobody’s as good as Bette when she’s “good,” as well.
Bette's critics claim that Davis only shines when playing showy villainesses. True, some of Bette’s very best roles were bad to the bone, like Of Human Bondage, Jezebel, The Letter, The Little Foxes, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Now, Voyager shows that Davis could be just as brilliant playing a sympathetic, complex role. Bette’s Charlotte Vale goes from a neurotic spinster to a stylish but insecure socialite to finally, a self-assured, independent woman. Davis takes Vale through an emotional minefield: a monster mother, a kind but married lover, and a rich but dull fiancée. And Davis’ character evolves every step of the way. Even after her “cure,” Charlotte is still uncertain, a voyager in uncharted waters. Had this been a MGM production, with Joan Crawford or Norma Shearer, Charlotte Vale would have been fine and dandy after her therapy and makeover!
|Paul Henreid as Jerry meets Bette Davis' Charlotte Vale on an ocean cruise. Yes, their journey becomes romantic!|
Though Now, Voyager’s plot is pure soap, the story still resonates with emotional truth and empathy. Bette Davis once wrote that she never received as much fan mail as she did for Now, Voyager, with people writing about their own tyrannical family members.
Now, Voyager is classic '40s cinema, yet certain attitudes are forward-thinking. Though some critics at the time complained that the finale reeked of soapy self-sacrifice, Charlotte’s decision to remain a single woman, instead of marrying for convenience, and enjoy what happiness she can, seems smart to me. Most significant is that Now, Voyager may be the first film to deal with psychiatry in a serious way.
At the core of Now, Voyager are two great performances, by Bette as the oppressed daughter Charlotte, and Gladys Cooper as the overbearing matriarch, Mrs. Vale. Davis, never afraid to look bad for a role, is an overweight, frumpy, beetle-browed old maid at the film’s beginning. Davis makes the metamorphosis from spinster Charlotte to stylish social butterfly, with the help of her great WB crew: Orry-Kelly’s brilliant costumes; Sol Polito’s beautiful cinematography; Perc Westmore’s expert makeup; and Maggie Donovan’s hairstyles.
The other classic performance is by Gladys Cooper, as the monstrous mother, Mrs. Vale. Cooper was 54 at the time, but plays the aged Boston society woman with malice and occasional high-handed humor. I’m always riveted by Cooper’s Mrs. Vale, especially in the scenes where she browbeats poor Charlotte. Gladys Cooper gives a fully-dimensional performance, and is a great foil to Davis’ beleaguered heroine. No surprise then that Davis and Cooper were both Oscar-nominated.
However, the entire cast of Now, Voyager is terrific. Claude Rains as Doctor Jaquith is another one of his great star character roles. In an era of typecasting, Rains was so lucky to have reigned with the complex roles he got to play. His Doctor Jaquith is sympathetic but strong-minded, speaking his mind to the bully mother, while gently keeping the daughter on course. Paul Henreid earned his leading man stripes in Now, Voyager as Jerry, the married man saddled with a witch of a wife. Henreid has never been as warm and appealing as he is here—Paul and Bette make a memorably mature couple. I recall reading that Davis said she thought Charlotte would continue working with Doctor Jaquith, a lovely thought.
Ilka Chase and Bonita Granville are bright spots as always, as Vale family members who watch Charlotte's transformation with amazement.
A special shout out to Mary Wickes, who made her film debut in 1942, in six movies! The classic character comedienne plays Dora, the no-nonsense, sassy nurse who expertly deals with the cranky Mrs. Vale. Wickes' trademark humor took off from here, working all the way to her death in 1995, in Postcards from the Edge, Little Women, and the Sister Act movies. This is also one of three films she made with Davis—The Man Who Came to Dinner and June Bride, as well as Now, Voyager. Charlotte’s classic line to the crafty nurse, who runs interference: “Dora, I suspect you’re a treasure.”
And on a Michigan note, a nod to one-time Detroit TV 50 movie host, Bill Kennedy, who had a bit role as Hamilton Hunneker. He’s the polo player who escorts Davis' Charlotte off the cruise ship. Kennedy looks handsome in a Robert Taylor type of way, charming in his cameo role—certainly more appealing than wooden John Loder, who plays Bette’s prospective groom.
Now, Voyager is of the most romantic movies of the ‘40s, helped immeasurably by Max Steiner’s lovely score. The refrain became the hit song, ‘It Can’t Be Wrong,’ a wartime favorite. Steiner won an Oscar for his work here. Irving Rapper directs stylishly and Casey Robinson’s screenplay is filled with memorable lines. Now, Voyager is Warner Brothers’ studio era filmmaking cooking on all burners.
The final scene of Now, Voyager is one of the most memorable in movies: Jerry lights two cigarettes, for both Charlotte and himself, while musing over their romantic dilemma. Charlotte replies, as the camera sweeps out the window, into the night sky: “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”
No matter how many times I watch that scene, my heart always melts. Now, Voyager is a movie trip well worth taking.